Why it’s still OK to love the Tour
With only days to go until the grand départ, Jonathan Ives offers a personal perspective of the Tour de France, the world’s greatest sporting event
Cycling fans turned out in huge numbers to see the Tour de France in London in 2007
The Tour demonstrates how fine the line between enthusiasm and fanaticism
News that Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s performance director, has advanced his plans to establish a British road racing team to compete in the Tour de France will have prompted delight among those of us who follow the sport. The 2010 Tour could well have a British Cycling team lining up for the grand depart and, given the achievements of British cyclists on road and track in recent years, who would bet against some success? Brailsford has suggested that a Tour winner could be a realistic prospect in “the medium term” but most British cycling fans would be more than happy with a team putting in credible performances in the biggest of all cycling spotlights; throw in the odd stage win and a few days in yellow and we would be delirious.
Like many cyclists – and a surprisingly large number of non-cyclists – my summers are dominated by the Tour de France. It marks the high point of the sporting year. In the preceding months I wonder about which riders will have found the form to be part of the peloton, which teams will be installed or ejected by dint of science or politics, and whether I can find the time to nip across the Channel to see a stage. The months after are a languorous decline through cricketing August into the darkening days of muddied Saturdays. For most of the rest of the non-Tour year idealised images of the world’s biggest annual sporting event winding through the sunshine of la France profonde amid meadows and mountains parade across my mind’s eye as a romanticised reminder of all that is good and beautiful in sport.
And romanticised it most certainly is. The prospect of a British team in the Tour reminded me of a now long-past conversation in the staff room of what was then still known as ILAM House. It was June so, as the kettle boiled, sporting talk turned to the Tour. How, my colleague Mr Williams, a noted semi-pro footballer and cricket enthusiast, wanted to know, could I possibly retain interest in a sport that had been mired beyond credibility by the latest in a long line of doping scandals? How can you get excited about a sport in which everybody seems to be cheating? He was right, of course, and the question remains. The huge impact of the Festina Affair, David Millar’s admissions of drug use, Raimondas Rumsas’s claims in 2005 that the mass of pharmaceutical supplies in the boot of his car were for his mother-in-law (prompting one sardonic official to comment that he looked forward to seeing her on the podium next year) had all taken their toll. Operation Puerto drew in still more of the sport’s biggest names, while the most recent Tours, during which Landis was stripped of the title after the event and Rasmussen was thrown off the race while in yellow, seemed to mark new lows. The 2008 Tour starts without last year’s winner as a result of his team’s previous associations with doping and only a few months ago Tom Boonen, one of the sport’s most celebrated sprinters and one of northern Europe’s most famous sportsmen, tested positive for the ‘recreational use’ of cocaine.
While I know that there is much more to the Tour than the question of who is clean, one cannot avoid the issue. The struggle continues but there are – if you will forgive the phrase – positive signs. While there have been false dawns before, there does seem to be a noticeable rigour around the claims of new attitudes. It is heartening to see many of the UK riders (the born-again anti-doper David Millar among them) and their teams at the forefront of efforts to rid the race of systematic doping but, as Mark Cavendish, one of British Cycling’s brightest of bright young things, put it recently to The Guardian, there will always be “dickheads” in any walk of sport or life who think they can beat the system. It is arguable that no sport is doing more to tackle drug misuse but then no sport had further to come. Fausto Coppi’s comment that he only took stimulants when absolutely necessary but that it proved necessary “most of the time” could have served as the motto of the peloton long after his own 1950s ‘golden age’. In the twenty-first century organisers, sponsors and riders seem finally to have recognised that it really is time to embrace a new culture before they run out of chances.
It is an irony perhaps that the Tour de France, professional cycling’s (and arguably all of sport’s) greatest spectacle should have become so obviously associated in doping for surely there is no other competition in which the winning of it plays so little part in its glory. Over three weeks and thousands of kilometres a winner emerges to stand in yellow in Paris but the real competitions and successes take place day by day as the stages unfold and hour by hour as the often unsung team members work to make sure their team mates get to the right place at the right time to find victory. Duties are discharged and honour is earned within the mysterious and dangerous high-speed world of etiquette and obligation that is the professional peloton. Much of this is unseen and uncelebrated by all but the most informed of observers. Where once the term domestique had been used as an insult to the journeymen that made up the numbers, the role has now become recognised as an essential element of success for anyone hoping to cover the 3,500 or so kilometres with any chance of finishing in the leader’s yellow jersey, the famed maillot jaune. That an individual can succeed only through collective effort is a maxim wholly understood within the ranks of the cyclist. While I did not attempt to duck the staff-room question, I did have to explain that there was no simple response. A coherent answer, I suggested, would include the economics and politics of twentieth-century Europe, a brief history of socialism, a good deal of anatomy and physiology, several bottles of red wine and a long evening. Mr Williams rolled his eyes, shooting me a look of both pity and despair before making his escape.
There are numerous books on the shelf (and the number grows) with a great variety of insights and approaches to why the Tour de France for all its modern faults and its imperfect history is still relevant. The Tour has its roots set deep in a France that at the turn of the twentieth century was an agrarian economy facing large-scale industrialisation, a largely rural population with an increasingly influential metropolitan elite and a country divided in every other respect by its politics and its understanding of the future. The Tour quickly became a symbol of a notionally united France, la grande boucle, the belt that held the hexagon together and appeared every year to emphasise the country’s survival of war, hardship and uncertainty. While the Tour provided unity, it also allowed sporting division to take the place of more heated affairs. Where once France was either Dreyfusard or anti-Dreyfusard, a Frenchman could now be for Anquetil or Poulidor, be a Bobetiste or an anti-Bobetiste (a division inspired by the uniquely irritating personality of the rider Louison Bobet), be convinced or otherwise that the dominance of Merckx would be the ruination of the Tour. Whatever one’s view, one could be certain that no one could win the Tour de France without overcoming repeated hardship by virtue of enduring effort; in sport as in life.
Like France itself, the Tour is about contradiction and balance, about beauty and suffering, dignity and survival. For the uninitiated, this makes for a sporting event that is difficult to understand. For the enthusiast, it makes for a celebration of sport unrivalled in its complexity and intrigue, its skill and endurance. While the sprinters may throw elbows, shoulders and fists in their high-speed fight for a stage win, elsewhere on the road the lightest touch of a hand on a back as one rider passes another can convey the most profound message of obligation and respect. While we marvel at the achievement of the rider who takes the honour of yellow in Paris, we may also celebrate a race in which the lanterne rouge – the rider who finishes last – is also a hero.
Is it still OK to love the Tour? Of course; you just have to know where to look.
Jonathan Ives is editor of The Leisure Review. He is currently packing his bags for a trip to Paris, even though he’s not going for another four weeks.
The Leisure Review, July 2008
© Copyright of all material on this site is retained by The Leisure Review or the individual contributors where stated. Contact The Leisure Review for details.
How, Mr Williams wanted to know, could I possibly retain interest in a sport that had been mired beyond credibility by the latest in a long line of doping scandals?
The Tour is about contradiction and balance, about beauty and suffering, dignity and survival... a celebration of sport unrivalled in its complexity and intrigue, its skill and endurance.